By Shawn Kennedy, AJN editor-in-chief
It’s sad but not surprising that Ebola has all but disappeared from the headlines. After all, it’s not an imminent threat here anymore. There’s no more news hype—no “you heard it here first” messaging each day to grab headlines.
While the numbers of new cases and deaths appear to have abated in most affected countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency committee on the 2014 Ebola outbreak recently cautioned that “the event continues to constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern” and concluded:
“the primary emphasis must continue to be on ‘getting to zero’ Ebola cases, by stopping the transmission of Ebola within the three most affected countries
As of the latest figures (Jan 21), there have been a total of 21,724 documented cases and 8,641 deaths worldwide—almost a 40% mortality rate. Among health care workers, there were 828 cases and 499 reported deaths.
Yet as communities are struggling to get back to normal routines (Sierra Leone, one of the hardest hit countries, with over 10,300 cases and 3,100 deaths, announced it will reopen schools in March for the first time in eight months), the rest of the world seems to have moved on, comfortable that the global threat has been mitigated.
The response of many governments and private organizations that poured resources into the hard-hits areas was laudable, and we saw how knowledgeable health care workers with the right equipment quickly made a difference.
But now what? What of the conditions—lack of health infrastructure, inadequate equipment, too few health care workers educated about Ebola and community health practices—that allowed the Ebola infection to spread unchecked for so long? The first WHO report on the Ebola outbreak was on August 29, 2014, but at first, the rest of the world remained unperturbed, seemingly viewing Ebola as an a problem specific to Africa.
This changed drastically, for a while, in the US, but once the fear began to subside, the media stopped paying attention. Are we going to just move on now, take our resources and wait for another outbreak that threatens us?
As with the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the developed world responded to the disaster, but after the crisis passed, our attention waned. Five years later, Haiti is still struggling to rebuild and continues to deal with a cholera epidemic that may have been inadvertently introduced into the country by UN peacekeepers. According to a UN news report, it’s estimated that over 707,000 people have been stricken with cholera and over 8,600 have died. Yet funding for immunizations and a sanitary water and sewage system is insufficient—a UN source has been quoted as saying that, at the current level of funding, it could take up to 40 years to end the cholera epidemic. (Last week, a US judge dismissed Haiti’s lawsuit against the UN to recoup damages because of international treaties. The UN has not acknowledged responsibility for the outbreak.)
It’s hard not to see a familiar pattern repeating itself now in West Africa: we are responsive in a crisis but then absent for the longer-term sustainability work that will truly make a difference. Does an illness have to be brought to our doorstep before we consider it worth addressing? To those who say we can’t afford to fix the problems in West Africa and Haiti, I say we can’t afford not to. If we learned anything from the Ebola epidemic, it’s that we live in a very small world.
Some of our earlier coverage of the Ebola outbreak: